Two complete round trips of the Inigo Jones-designed St Paul's Church in Covent Garden are needed to cycle through Iris Theatre's new, blood-soaked production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the audience moving around with the action through the nooks and crannies of the old graveyard (now a restful garden) and in and out of the church itself.
So let slip the dogs of war and get thee to the box office for a night of sublime entertainment
Sounds assail us, and we're not sure if they're from an aeroplane about to crash land, or a battle being fought off stage. People look around nervously, waiting for the bang as this is a disorientating production skilfully directed by Daniel Winder which keeps you on your toes in more ways than one.
It's the physicality of the piece that grabs you and shakes you like a stick in a Rottweiler's mouth. Blood spurts over hallowed floors, friends take chunks out of each other with their teeth, and bodies clunk onto unforgiving marble. The fight scenes are played out within inches of the audience – one wrong move and I would have had a cosh in the mush – and Molotov cocktails are happily lit and slung. Quite what the church's neighbours make of it is anyone's guess (although I suppose living in Covent Garden they must be used to most things).
The most surprising aspect amidst this mayhem is just how intimate and touching some scenes prove to be. It helps when you're in a claustrophobic tent with a relatively small audience, but the pace is ratcheted up and down notches like notches are going out of fashion, and it's done universally well.
Similarly, although the testosterone levels are abnormally high from the off when we see the boys swinging riot shields about, dressed in their ad hoc leather creations, Doc Marten's and fetching black codpieces, there's no lack of emotion and real feeling in their playing when it's needed. These men have balls but can also be bruisingly vulnerable.
The vibe is punk meets A Clockwork Orange meets The Prodigy, with the Soothsayer (Simon Kent) sporting a sort of nuclear fallout look, with fingerless rubber gloves and a gas mask with the mouth loped off. He hops around the gardens like an anarchic man possessed (which he is, I suppose), leaning back into Christ-like poses, leaning forwards to menace the audience, and mouthing the words to high octane songs. Needing to communicate something life-shatteringly important but finding no one is listening, he cuts a genuinely scary, unhinged figure while articulating 'Killa Bunnies are Coming' and showering us with unnerving hand-drawn photocopies depicting the masks that the cast intermittently wear: is it a sheep, a goat, a rabbit, a dog?
The playing is uniformly good, with Matthew Melalieu a weighty Caesar in body and soul, while David Hywel Baynes as Brutus is raw, angry and expansive. Daniel Hanna's Casca is a little left-field but this balances the more conventional playing from the rest of the cast out nicely and he naturally draws the eye when not speaking.
Looking exactly like your archetypal squaddie - all square jaw, low brow, and bulk - Matt Wilman's Mark Antony is a revelation as the play progresses. Starting out relatively low key, he grows before your eyes into a statesman projecting authentic power and authority.
The star of this piece is, arguably, St Paul's itself. It's simply magical when we're sitting outside in twilight and the cast push open the doors to reveal a smoke-filled, lit-up interior, and then beckon us inside. In the second half, people pass in and out of the swirling portal which signifies the edge of the battlefield. This is a stunning use of location and I've never seen better.
And I've never seen a better assassination scene either. One minute a slow-motion film, the next a beautifully choreographed dance, the next a Caravaggio canvas, then a gory murder scene, it was over far too quickly to take it all in in its ethereal and haunting beauty. A good proportion of the audience gasped in appreciation which isn't something you hear every day. And something else as rare as hen's teeth is me saying that I'd love to see a play twice, but I'd quite happily sit through this visceral and stunning piece again, as I'm sure would most of the audience there on press night who gave it a universal standing ovation.
So let slip the dogs of war and get thee to the box office for a night of sublime entertainment, and then count the days till Iris Theatre's next production – Alice in Wonderland - at the same venue later this month. Quite what they'll do with that is anyone's guess, but I can't wait to find out.